Do The Steelers Need An Elite Defensive Unit To Succeed?




When it comes to defensive unit in the NFL, few have been consistently as formidable as the Pittsburgh Steelers.



Since 2017, the Steelers defense has led the lead league in almost every statistical category; total sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions, and total turnovers. This past season was no exception, as the team got off to an 11-0 start, led by a defensive unit who finished in the top 3. Despite having an elite defensive unit, the Steelers regressed during the latter portion of the season, and found a way to get eliminated in the first round to the Cleveland Browns.



In the last few seasons, there has been a common theme to the Steelers involving elite defensive units and disappointing season results. If we were to use this as our premise, this is a sample of how it has been since 2017:


  • 2017: #7 ranked defense - First round playoff exit to the Jacksonville Jaguars

  • 2018: #17 ranked defense - Missed Playoffs

  • 2019: #6 ranked defense - Missed Playoffs

  • 2020: #3 ranked defense - First round playoff exit to the Cleveland Browns


With the noted exception being the 2018 season, the Steelers have held a top ten defense each season, but they have yet to make it past the first round of the playoffs. When viewing these results, one has to wonder why having top-ranked defensive units has yielded little success?



To find our answer, we should look back at their 2016 season. That year, the Steelers finished in the top ten in total defense. It also happens that they were ranked in the top 20 in total rushing yards and yards per carry, led by All-Pro running back Le'veon Bell. As a result of having this type balance on both sides of the ball, the Steelers made all the way to the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots.



The Steelers 2016 season is significant in two ways; their rushing offense has not been nearly as productive, and they have yet to make it past the first round of playoffs since that time.


  • 2017 - 20th ranked rushing offense

  • 2018 - 31st ranked rushing offense

  • 2019 - 29th ranked rushing offense

  • 2020 - 32nd ranked rushing offense


Considering the offensive-centric nature of today's NFL, it is not a coincidence that their subpar rushing offense, has played a major role in either missing the playoffs, or getting eliminated in the first round. Their inability to run the ball, has affected their ability to sustain long drives, and maintain time of possession. This past season, we saw how the absence of this element, made their entire offense predictable to opposing defenses. As a consequence, the Steelers defense was forced to carry the load, which in turn led to more injuries down the stretch.



For the Steelers to have greater success, competency in each unit on the team should be linear. Even with an elite defensive unit, it is paramount they have an offensive unit that is equally as strong and consistent. This offseason presents an opportunity for them to renovate all their units, and put together a team that can potentially make a long playoff run.

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